Taking my teenage to stage: I got Mortified and lived to tell the tale

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Teenage me at—where else—the Maine Mall

Mortified is an exercise in retrospective, voyeuristic group therapy as a form of public entertainment. A number of people—5 in the case of a recent event that took place at SPACE Gallery on Saturday night—get in front of a crowd and read excerpts from their teenage journals. While it sounds like it has the potential to be cringe-inducing and sad, the event was both therapeutic and fun for the performer and audience alike. As I shared my own excerpts, I was fortunate to see it from both perspectives.The phenomenon is a national one that maintains local chapters. The New England chapter, led by Boston-based organizers, is trying to get a group in Portland up and running and the Saturday event was part of that effort. You should definitely participate.

Mortified Nation, a documentary about the series, is available on Netflix.

What helps to keep Mortified from turning into a cesspool of needy self-indulgence (there is a touch of that, of course, but not a toxic amount) is that it is not a free-for-all public confessional. Submissions go through a process of work-shopping where the presenter works with a producer to sort through past journal entries, establish a flow and edit the them (without changing any content) into a performance. When she and I began working together on my piece, my producer, the fantastic Sara Faith Alterman, told me that the editing process often carries through the day of the event. This ended up being the case my my own edit. I found the iterative nature of that process to be at once satisfying and cleansing.

The five performances revisited everything from love-letters to imaginary boyfriends, to bad poetry, to angry letters to past roommates. In my own performance, I read journal entries about setting an abandoned building on fire, contemplating my fondness for masturbation, meditations on then-unachievable sexual encounters, and secretly meeting Internet friends in real life.

Needless to say, the topic matter can be quite adult, and it can be laugh-out-loud funny one moment and devastating the next. The following excerpts are from my session:

02.03.1997: Things to remember about being 13 and 1996: I crave attention. I am a kleptomaniac. I masturbate constantly.

01.01.1998: Note to self: this all is just proof that you were really fucked up when you were 15. When you have totally fucked up kids who are obsessive and assholes, just remember that you were one major disappointment to your mom and dad.

But that is exactly how I remember my teenage feeling—equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and devastating, all while maintaining a lingering air of heightened confusion and frenetic, pulsating sexuality.

Thumbing through the pages of those long-untouched journals was as cathartic as it was surprisingly familiar. I was shocked to find that, with the exception of having learned a thing or two about grammar since that time, my writing voice hasn’t changed so much since I was a teenager. While I expected to find my younger self to be juvenile, I was heartened to learn that I was more thoughtful and sophisticated than I remember being. My tendency toward social justice and awareness was not merely zygotic, but on its way to full development. In one entry, I considered having sex with a co-worker with whom I had been maintaining a flirtatious relationship. I eventually come to the conclusion that yes, perhaps she wants sex, but she also wants love and since I did not love her, any advances on my part would be disingenuous and thus could be considered rape. I don’t recall thinking seriously about the consequences or definition of rape at this time, let alone thinking so abstractly about consent, but apparently it was very much on my mind.

Or take this entry, which considers my first encounter with a gay person (and quite possibly my first encounter with actually understanding the concept of homosexuality itself):

04.27.1998: I was on [the message board I frequent] today and Scott, a regular who normally jokes about his homosexuality, asked “Who thinks that I am going to hell for being gay” (I’m serious.)”

Wow. That’s all I could think. How tough is that? Scottie likes guys, just like I like girls, but instead of being looked at as being normal, he is ridiculed and excommunicated by a lot of people. This crap is insane. But good for him. We all love him. Everyone told him there was no way he was going to hell. I told him that “If heaven was my thing, once I got there I would be waiting to see you.”

While it was surprising to rediscover where I was in my head at that time, it was also surprising to learn that much of my adolescence—particularly the separation of my parents, the resultant difficult relationship that I maintained with my father and scares related to his declining health and advanced age—had been marked by my wanting for comfort and stability. Reading all of my reflections makes it clear that I was scared and struggling much more than I recall, and that I took a lot that came at me harder than I have since acknowledged. I remember things being difficult, but I didn’t remember how tough I took it until I revisited those pages:

05.06.1997: My father and I love each other and we know it, but he is such a dickhead all of the time. Just the slightest thing sets him off and he is mad for days. It is just one of the things in my life that I will never understand.

12.07.1997: While at work today I started to think. My thought brought me to the verge of tears. I realize that in the past 14 years I have not given my father the love and respect he deserves.

Especially enlightening was being reminded of how markedly different my life became after I got online for the first time. In 1998, we bought a computer and immediately got access to the Internet. I was finally able to connect with communities of people that had similar interests, felt similarly frustrated with their own plights, and saw things from a similar perspective. I had finally found communities in which I could be myself. There is a very clear difference between the frustrated—and sometimes tormented—entries that came before connection, and the clearer, measured, and excited ones that come afterward.

My teenage took place in the early age of the commercial Internet, back when it was a widely held belief that only sex fiends and child murderers lurked online. There had been a number of events that happened throughout my adolescence, and similar events that occurred with greater frequency throughout my teenage, that led me to believe that all authority was frail and hollow. One could say that the same perspective is applicable to every teenager, but I differed in that not only did I feel it my duty to undermine it, I lived in a house with an aging, inattentive single parent and so I often had the opportunity to do so. I often took advantage of relatively lax parental oversight to, among many other transgressions, set up dozens of real life meetings with my Internet peers. Sometimes these meetings took place out of state.

Because I was tall I looked older than I was, I could go out drinking with my older acquaintances. I had a short-lived physical relationship with a Boston-based college student. I once had to drag a girl out from under a mob of skinheads after she did too many drugs and passed out at a Sam Black Church show. I went to meet a friend in Philly for a weekend where she and I almost got beaten to death by a gang. We missed out on seeing a show we had tickets to because it was canceled after the band’s van was stolen and set on fire. I was put into a situation during a particularly memorable in-real-life meet up in which I had to take care of a friend who nearly bled out due to complications from a botched abortion. After hours of talking, I convinced her to go to an Emergency Room, from which she was turned away because at that time, in that state, state law made follow-up care difficult for providers that did not preform the original procedure. My disdain for authority was justified once again.

And so a great deal of my behavior from this point on was risky to say the least. I am a parent now and the thought of my daughter engaging in some of these scenarios during her as-yet unrealized teenage is terrifying. As reckless as it seems in retrospect, though, my behavior was also passionate and inspired, which are states I had not been in for some time beforehand. I was able to see that there was more to the world than the frustrations and seemingly myopic inevitabilities immediately before me. I hadn’t been able to see this beforehand, and that lack of context was crushing me.

I recall having talked about suicide with some peers in those pre-Internet days, and I mention it in passing in the journal a handful of times. There is one passage in which I discuss a screenplay I had hoped to write where a boy in an identical situation to mine kills himself as a means of saying all of the things he otherwise felt he was not free to express. While the thought never plagued me to the point of action, there were certainly times when it was on the table. Had I been born a few years beforehand, though, a few years before connecting was an option, I don’t know how I would have ended up. I certainly could not have handled a few more years of that darkness gracefully.

It is in this realization about my own experience, I should mention, that—beyond the obvious reasons—I find it so heartbreaking that some kids are finding increased levels of connectivity lead to harassment-induced suicide. I have worked with a number of teenagers in a number of contexts, serving as a mentor and a figure to whom they can speak honestly about their lives. I have learned that even the strongest kids, even the most accomplished, are sometimes so fragile that just one devastating experience can in an instant nudge them to explore irreversible self-harm. For me, the Internet was a way out, an escape, whereas for many kids today, perpetual connection can be a tether to bullying, an augmentation of the feeling that there is no getting out of youth alive.

Becoming reacquainted with my teenage self is one of the privileges of taking part in Mortified. Instead of being—well—mortified, I felt reified. It was as if I was afforded the opportunity to connect with an old, somewhat troubled friend who, it turns out, was happy to report that everything turned out just fine. It had been so long since we last saw each other, young me and present me. I felt fortunate to get to reconvene. It was fun to relive some of the melodrama, some of the heightened sexuality and theatrics synonymous with teenage that I touched upon earlier. It was even more fun to get laughs from an audience for doing so. It was just as important to me, though, to share the pieces about how fucked up I was feeling at that time with a sympathetic crowd. I have long since reconciled all of that stuff and much of that darkness, but when I was standing before that audience, I was particularly pleased on the behalf of my 15-year-old self. I was happy that people were hearing him, laughing and gasping and feeling with him, which is so much of what he so desperately wanted all those years ago.

Want to participate at an upcoming show? Get in touch with Mortified today.



Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.